Safety & Security

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When Cheaters Enter Marathons, Internet Sleuths Are Right on their Heels

12 Dec, 2018

By: Michael Popke

Officials with China’s Shenzhen Half Marathon punished 258 runners who were caught cheating during the Nov. 25 race. Violators included 18 participants with fake bib numbers, three people who competed as different registered runners and 237 entrants who cut the course, according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua

The imposters and runners using fake bibs were banned for life from the event, while the 237 athletes who cut the course received a two-year ban. The course-cutting was caught on video.

“The sad reality is that having this many runners cutting a course in a large race is not at all surprising. It is normal,” according to the website MarathonInvestigation.com. “The case in China got attention because the runners were caught on camera. It makes a better story with the visual evidence. This happens on a comparable scale at nearly every race where the course provides the opportunity to cut across a street to shave a few miles. Maybe it’s 100 runners, maybe it’s 300. We should stop acting shocked. Until cheating runners have real consequences, there is no deterrent to this behavior. Some races will ban runners that sell their bibs or that use bib mules in their races. Races are more hesitant to ban a couple hundred course cutters every year.”

In fact, there is a niche market of armchair sleuths who make it their business to help the directors of big-name races track down cheaters who steal bibs, cut courses and engage in other nefarious practices in order to compete – and sometimes to try to manipulate their way into even more high-stakes events, such as the Boston Marathon.

And those crafty Internet users who are right in their heels have found their calling tracking down race cheats.

Some, like Derek Murphy, have actually run marathons, and are now part of the small confederacy of armchair detectives who have earned some notoriety in the race world for their sophisticated forensic work. Other amateur gumshoes regularly post their suspicions and evidence on the message boards of sites like LetsRun.com.

In many cases, trends become apparent. Ego-driven runners are often looking for admission to a bucket-list race and don’t have the chops to post the times needed. Others want to simply get social media fame out of posting information about themselves ‘competing.’ Some don't want to pay the fee to register so they just pick up other runners' bibs, shirts and materials, effectively stealing materials and fees, as well as the race experience.

Then, there are the Rosie Ruiz types who find illegal ways to cross the finish line ahead of other runners -- mainly by running fewer miles. MarathonInvestigation.com, one sleuth website, has seen multiple examples of this type of cheating in races over the years.

  • At the 2015 Honolulu Marathon, more than 400 runners missed three or more timing mats and very likely cut the course, according to the website.

  • And more than 5,000 runners in the Mexico City Marathon were disqualified for course cutting in both 2017 and 2018.

Xinhua reports that the number of road races in China is increasing: “According to the latest data from the Chinese Athletics Association, 1,072 marathons and road races have been held in China this year, up from just 22 in 2011.”

RunnersWorld.com adds that elsewhere in China, “race officials are taking high-tech steps to guard against race cheating. For instance, the Hangzhou International Marathon planned on using facial recognition software as a way to prevent fraud in this year’s event. In 2017, the Beijing Half Marathon used similar technology to guard against cheating, too.”

As for the Shenzhen Half-Marathon, organizers appear frustrated for reasons beyond the obvious. 

“We deeply regret the violations that occurred during the event,” they told Xinhua. “Marathon running is not simply exercise; it is a metaphor for life, and every runner is responsible for him or herself.”

Want to know who the trackers are who catch these people? Want to know how they got there? Maybe want to get involved in the fight for truth, justice and the full 26.2 mile route yourself? This article serves as a great jumping-off point.

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